University graduate receives a surprise commencement

Yamile Fornaris, center, receives her diploma for the Master’s in Special Education from Miriam Lipsky, adjunct professor at the School of Education and Human Development, during a surprise graduation at the Vineland Elementary School, where Fornaris teaches. Donner Valle, programs manager for the School of Education and Human Development, looks on.

By Barbara Gutierrez

Yamile Fornaris, center, receives her diploma for the Master’s in Special Education from Miriam Lipsky, adjunct professor at the School of Education and Human Development, during a surprise graduation at the Vineland Elementary School, where Fornaris teaches. Donner Valle, programs manager for the School of Education and Human Development, looks on.

University graduate receives a surprise commencement

By Barbara Gutierrez
Yamile Fornaris couldn’t make it to her May graduation ceremony because of her father’s illness. University faculty members and parents and colleagues at the elementary school where she teaches, brought the celebration to her this month.

It took Yamile Fornaris six years to complete her Master’s in Special Education from the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development.

Her journey was full of challenges. During that time, she worked full time as a teacher at Vineland K-8 Center and had to cope with many family and personal health issues. But she persevered, taking one course each semester.

“It was my dream to graduate from UM,” she said. “I also wanted to show the young people in my family that no matter what life throws at you, you can make your dreams come true.”

Fornaris was supposed to walk in May’s commencement ceremonies at the Watsco Center. But her father, who had been battling Stage 4 cancer, took a turn for the worse right before graduation. Fearing the worst, Fornaris donned her regalia and took a picture with him in the hospital.

He died on commencement day.  

“I was disappointed that I could not go to commencement, but I chose to spend the last few hours with my father,” she lamented.

Unbeknownst to Fornaris, several of her students’ parents, co-workers, and former professors were working behind the scenes to make sure she had a commencement experience.

On June 1, Fornaris’ kindergarten class was scheduled to receive their diplomas. As the ceremony was ending, Miriam Lipsky, an adjunct professor from the School of Education and Human Development, and Donner Valle, programs manager for the school, stepped onto the Vineland auditorium stage and asked Fornaris to come up.

They had brought commencement regalia for her to wear, and they had her diploma, as well.

Tears ran down Fornaris’ face as she realized what was happening. She would have her University graduation after all.

“It was epic,” Fornaris exclaimed. “I was in awe, and I felt like I was walking in a dream. I had no clue this would happen. I had never seen so much love and care from a group of people.”

At Vineland K-8 Center, where she has worked for the past 15 years, Fornaris is known as the teacher who goes the extra mile for her students. “For me, my students are my family,” said Fornaris. “I treat them as I would want to be treated.”

Lipsky, who met Fornaris in 2015 and had encouraged her to apply to the University, has observed her in the classroom.   

“You can see that she really cares about each one of her students and takes the time to get to know them and their families,” said Lipsky. “I know how difficult it can be to take classes while working full time as a teacher, and though her road to this master’s degree has been long, and there have been some bumps along the way, Ms. Fornaris has persisted.”

Fornaris developed a love of teaching early in life. Right after graduating from South Miami High School, she took several certificate courses and was able to teach in several private schools in Miami-Dade County. She later received her bachelor’s degree from Nova Southeastern University.

She was drawn to special education after she saw how her younger brother was physically disciplined for being disruptive in class.“Back then there was no knowledge of ADHD or any other such condition,” Fornaris said. “If it had been now, he would have been helped.”

Since then, she has made it her mission to work diligently with each one of her students, get to know their needs, and provide whatever support is needed to the child and the family, she noted.

Fornaris often tells her students to remember they are frogs. “Once a frog, always a frog,” she said. The phrase is representative of the bond that is built between her and her students and their families.

“I remind them that as they move ahead there is an expectation of a frog, and that is to leap always to their greatest potential with respect and honor toward others, regardless of their race, color, or disability,” she pointed out.

Wendy Morrison-Cavendish, professor and director of the master’s degree program in special education at the School of Education and Human Development, has worked with Fornaris for the past 6 years.

“I think she has a real nurturing and warmth in her commitment to her students,” said Morrison-Cavendish. “She manages to keep her focus on building a nurturing space in her classroom even with all the other demands.”

It was this commitment that prompted Kim Meyers, mother to James, one of Fornaris’ students, to reach out to the University and make the surprise graduation happen.

“Ms. Fornaris shared that her dad was in his final moments battling cancer, and she would not be able to attend her graduation,” Meyers said. “We (the parents of her students) were truly heartbroken for her and her family. She had worked so hard and was so excited to attend her graduation, in honor of her father, but instead she was faced with one of the most difficult moments a person can possibly face in life.”

It was then that Meyers reached out to see if the surprise graduation could happen.   

“It was beautiful to see the University of Miami and the community of Vineland come together to restore a bit of light to the life of such a special teacher and person,” Meyers said.